Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?

We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness. Albert Schweitzer


Schweitzer’s aphorism came decades earlier than Facebook, Twitter and all the social media that have become a constant of our high-tech society. If what he said was true then, it is much more so today. My copy of The Atlantic arrived today. (I still get my magazines via snail mail.) This is supposed to be “The Culture Issue,” but I failed to see much of what I would call culture inside. One of the main feature did hit on a theme I have often written about in this blog: the negative side of social media technology. Neither Kanye West or Jay-Z (both also featured in another main story) are my idea of “culture.”

In a long, well researched article, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?,” Stephen Marche weighs in mostly on the affirmative side. That’s where I have been all along without the benefit of access to the research Marche draws on. Social science data shows a rather sharp increase of the numbers of people who say they feel lonely much of the time. Marche quotes results of an AARP survey that “found that 35 percent of adults older than 45 were chronically lonely, as opposed to 20 percent of a similar group only a decade earlier.

Loneliness is just one symptom of a general breakdown in the state of the human condition in the US. The article continues with some astounding statistics about the explosive numbers of health care professionals dealing with what is broadly classed as some form of mental health or better mental un-health. In the late 1940’s, some 2,500 clinical psychologists, 30,000 social workers, and less than 500 marriage therapists comprised the mental health treatment corps. As of 2010, Ronald Dworkin reported that the numbers had jumped to 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 400,000 non-clinical social workers, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 105,000 mental health counselors, 220,00 substance-abuse counselors, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches.

Not all of this can be attributed to the need to treat growing loneliness, but is gives stark evidence of a major social breakdown. I find it interesting that we need so much more help and input from professional “others” these days to enable us to be autonomous and self-satisfied than 50 years ago? Loneliness is negatively correlated with other measures of health, for example obesity, cognitive decline, and earlier entry into nursing facilities. Medical research by John Cacioppo, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, reported in the article, ties loneliness biochemically to basic physiological functions down even to the level of gene expression.

Marche is careful not to blame the social media alone for the rise of loneliness. He points out that affluence has led to more sprawl and physical separation. Individualism has always been a characteristic feature of the American culture. Americans, Marche says, “are lonely because we want to be lonely.” I don’t fully agree with his statement. I think he has mistakenly conflated a desire to be free from outside domination with a sort of existential isolationism. These two are connected via the structure of the culture that evolves over time. If the technological systems and the institutional practices promote individualistic behavior, then individual beliefs will also evolve towards a sense of autonomy and disconnection.

My sense is that we a trapped by the culture into believing that we are simply autonomous nodes in a social world. We exhibit care mostly about ourselves and minimize concerns about others and the world. Even care about the transcendent centers on our concerns for our own afterlife. Since I belief that flourishing, the quality that sustainability is all about, rests on a balance among all major domains of care, this inwardly focused development is not good for us or the world. It fails to produce flourishing and worse it is producing the pathological outcomes Marche ticks off.

He also refers to data showing that we are increasingly narcissistic, a recognized personality disorder. The results of a 2008 survey showed levels of narcissism were 3 times greater in people older than 65 than people in their 20’s. There’s no firm proof that this is due to the “generation gap” in the use of smartphones or tablets, but it is consistent with the much larger use by the young of these devices and the social media that are a major function of their use.

But what about the way these media are used? Don’t they increase, not decrease, the connectedness of people? Numerically, for sure. Celebrities claim Twitter followers in the 100,000’s. People routinely have 100’s of friends on Facebook. They do not, however, improve the quality of these relationships; just the opposite. The article quotes Sherry Turkle, an MIT researcher, as saying “The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.” The intimacy provided by face-to-face relationships is a critical factor in the embodiment of connectedness. Marche notes that social media offer an escape from the challenges of face-to-face interaction (embarrassment, gaffes, awkwardness), but at the expense of authenticity.

Facebook and the others are quickly addictive (my assessment, not the article’s). Every moment between what would be normal and healthy pauses in the flow of daily life is occupied by these devices and the isolating programs that are being used at an alarming rate. There is no time for taking care of one of the essential domains of care, idleness or solitude. Solitude is a very important condition. Thoreau said, “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Solitude enables connection to the world, not isolation from it as does technology.

Technology always stands between the actor and the world; that’s one of its inherent features. It enables the user to affect the world at the other end of the technological thing. And in the separation from the world, something is almost always lost. Unintended consequences occur because we are unconscious of the full impact of the use of technology, both on the world outside and on ourselves. In the case at hand, the richness and critical functions of friends gets lost through the mindless, unreflective use of Facebook. The nature of friendship becomes just another thing we come to “have.” Its contribution to our Being and, subsequently, our ability to flourish gets lost.

The article ends on a sad (for me) note:

Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.

In the system of thinking I use in thinking and writing about sustainability, I would slightly modify what Marche has written. For me, the real chance that is lost is the possibility to connect, not disconnect. Connection to the web of life, which is always present, even if we fail to recognize that presence, is at the heart of Being and the way we take care of important chunks of the world, like our friends. Facebook can’t do that job for us.